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Feeding time

Trinity 7 BCP

22 July 2007 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

We seem to live in what might be called a ‘Go away’ society. Full of interruptions we find inconvenient, and sadly the sheer pace of life often means that the new encounter is regarded more as a problem than an opportunity. It doesn’t help that intrusions into what we might be doing already, are not so often due to others genuine needs, so much as greed for marketing information and so forth. Intrusions assail us every day. Even within the family, strategies of avoidance are worked out so that children are directed to the TV or the computer game or the internet. I wonder how many parents kick a ball or throw a frisbee with their children. Or how many adults - you don’t need to be a child to do these things. There seem to be so many invisible ‘Do not disturb’ signs in our lives.

Being fully available to family and friends, let alone those who seek us out for comfort and counsel, probably needs as much planning and ‘ring fencing’ as when and where we say our prayers.

My experience of Benedictine monks living the monastic life is a good one. How the stranger is welcomed as if he or she were Christ. But that welcome comes from within an ordered daily structure, with plenty of silence, and prayer, and time for reflection already built in.

Our Lord was good in living a life that announced ‘come hither’ to those who crowded in on his life. There was no question of being told to go away or do not disturb. The gospels give two accounts of Jesus miraculously feeding large numbers of people – and the BCP provides for both versions to be read every year. Today’s feeding of 4000 from St. Mark, and St. John’s account of feeding the 5000 which is read twice – first during Lent, and then for the last Sunday after Trinity. One of the slight deficiencies of the Prayer Book lectionary. St. Mark gospel,(and Matthew) which was the earliest to be written, records both stories, and we might well ask why there are two such similar stories only two chapters apart. Are they in fact essentially the same story, simply repeated with variations? Some take this line. Others follow an interpretation that goes back as far the 4th Century and claims a good reason having both accounts. This sees the feeding of the 5000 as symbolizing the giving of the Bread of Life to the Jews, and the feeding of the 4000 the giving of the Bread of Life to the Gentiles. The locations of the miracles are at the opposite ends of the Sea of Galilee, and therefore the composition of the crowd is supposed to vary accordingly. Jews on the north side of the lake, and gentiles near the southern part, which is where today’s meal is set. Further levels of significance are read into the details of using 5 loaves for the 5000 (a possible reference to the Jewish Torah or Pentateuch – the five books of the Law) and 7 loaves for the 4000 (we note there were 70 nations into which the Gentile world was traditionally divided…there are 7 deacons mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles).

We glimpse the extent to which Jesus is prepared to expend himself, in the way he reacts to the crowds. Though he has had a non-stop round of teaching and healing (always in a hurry in St. Mark’s gospel), we might suppose, and in the other version of this story we are actually told, that the Lord was desperately in need of rest and prayer. It would be quite normal to think to oneself: ‘oh not yet another demanding and tiring crowd’. Do not disturb. But he felt sorry for them, and he loved and cared for them too much to escape, or tell them to go away. They must have looked somehow pathetic, having gone to the trouble of getting to see him, together with their sick. Struggling just to sit at the feet of Jesus who spoke in a way that excited deep hope in jaded hearts. He felt sorry for them, and resolves to satisfy their hunger. In dramatic fashion. The meal is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, and resonates with the many meals Jesus shares with friends…with open house for tax collectors and sinners. It points forward to the Eucharist where all of us receive into our needy and empty hands the very life of God. Here we hold out to God empty hands…and he gives not just beautiful ideas…or even good advice…but himself, the Bread of Life. In other words, relieving the physically hungry is a start, but will, in the end, never be enough.

Of course we must attend urgently to those who are starving as a result of drought or flood. Of course we must ensure there is no hunger for medicines that can help with diseases like AIDS and malaria. Of course we must address the revolting disparity between rich and poor, which we are told last week is increasing here in Britain, with the worry that, for the first time, people from different worlds are increasingly failing even to meet. But the remedies of this world, for this world, will never suffice. We will always need to confront poverty and hunger, and the Lord tells us so. There are deeper hungers. The hunger of the heart…the hunger for meaning…for recognition…for acceptance…in one word…the hunger for love.

The gospel is clear where, uniquely, this hunger can be satiated: and the feeding is only for those who seek Jesus and the kingdom of God, before all other things. St. Mark’s gospel tells us the crowd had been listening to Jesus for three days, and had nothing left to eat. Only the hungry can be fed. This bread is exclusively to be found in the wilderness. Those who love the world and its pleasures will never find it. The bread is Christ himself. And if he can feed 9000 people, what can he do for you and me?

Having been fed ourselves on the love of Christ we are not to send people away – we are to feed them. And Jesus shows us how, through prayer, it can be done, until all are satisfied and there is even food left over. The whole world can be fed, both physically and spiritually. All the world can be healed…listened to…and taught about love. And we are the ones chosen in Christ to feed his world.
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